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Turkey Vulture

Ruby by Tara Lemezis
Meet Ruby

Hatched: Spring 2007

Arrived at Audubon: Sept. 28, 2007

Sex: Female

Expected lifespan: 15-20 years in wild; 20-25 in captivity

History: In 2007, a woman called the Wildlife Care Center to report that an apparently tame Turkey Vulture was hanging around her property near McMinnville, Ore. It had flown down to the ground and thrown an acorn at someone’s feet, slept on the woman's porch, followed her around and into her barn, and jumped onto her arm. 

Care center staff made numerous calls to find out where Ruby had come from, but could not find a history. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife permit department and care center staff determined that Ruby had probably been illegally taken from the wild as a baby and imprinted onto humans. As a result, Ruby cannot be returned to the wild, where she would most likely fall prey to predators, be hurt by humans, or  be taken in as a pet.

Sponsor Ruby

You can help care for Ruby through Portland Audubon's "Sponsor a Wild Thing" program. Sponsorship is a great way to learn more about our incredible education birds; to help us meet the birds' food, medical, and housing needs; and to support our efforts to bring the birds to classrooms and events, where they serve as ambassadors for their species and Portland Audubon. Sponsor Ruby now.

Ruby by Tara Lemezis
Species Fact Sheet

Scientific name
Cathartes aura

Class: Aves
Order: Falconiformes
Family: Cathartidae
Genus: Cathartes
Species: Aura

The species' common name “Turkey Vulture” comes from the similarity of its head coloring to that of turkeys. Also known as the “Turkey Buzzard,” it is believed to have evolved independently of turkeys and is instead related to storks and cormorants.

Male length: 29-32 inches
Female length: slightly smaller

Male weight: 3-5 pounds
Female weight: slightly smaller

Male wingspan: 68-72 inches
Female wingspan: slightly smaller

A mature Turkey Vulture normally has dark brown plumage with a blue, purple or green iridescence. Outer feathers are fringed with medium-olive gray coloring, while underparts are generally a brown-olive shade. The bird's head and neck are bristled sparsely and bright red in color. The relatively large beak is white and the bird's sharp eyes are a dull yellow.

Juvenile Turkey Vultures closely resemble their elders, but the young are hooded with soft gray feathers. Their plumage, eyes and beak are blackish and their legs are yellow-white.

There are some subtle regional variations in Turkey Vultures' appearance. In the Amazon rainforests, plumage is somewhat darker, and in the Falkland Islands, green and bronze plumage is dominant.

The versatile Turkey Vulture has a range that includes most of North and South America as well as the Caribbean. Throughout this area, they inhabit grasslands, swamps, mountains and rainforests. They are the most widely distributed vulture on the planet.

Habitat/territory size
The territory of a single Turkey Vulture fluctuates with both the availability of carrion and their migratory tendencies. Habitat is extremely diversified and the birds travel to wherever scavenging is plentiful.

Turkey Vultures migrate thousands of miles north each spring from their tropical winter homes, and each fall return south to their old nesting sites. Turkey Vultures travel in unorganized flocks, called kettles, of several hundred birds. The flock may also include Black- and Yellow-headed Vultures. Because they dislike open water, some narrow points in the migration are crowded. During migration little or no food is consumed.

Turkey Vultures are true scavengers. Although they prefer to eat well-rotted carrion, they have been known to eat an assortment of treats. These animals very rarely kill prey themselves, but have been known to kill newborn pigs, young herons and ibis. Occasionally, they catch small mammals like mice and eat grasshoppers, fish and even rotting pumpkins.

Hunting method
Turkey Vultures' keen sense of smell sets them apart from other vultures, which rely only on eyesight to spot prey. This is especially useful for Turkey Vultures that live in the tropics, where the rainforest canopy often conceals carrion from view.

Vultures “hunt” independently instead of searching for food in a true pack. When one spirals down toward prey, other vultures – including those of other species – notice and gather at the carrion.

Of all the vultures, the Turkey Vulture is most likely to be the first to locate carrion. It is closely followed by Black and King Vultures that spot its movements. Unfortunately for the Turkey Vulture, it possesses a weak beak and must either wait until the carrion has been torn in pieces or wait until the flesh has somewhat decayed. When feeding, Turkey Vultures have been known to gorge themselves so much that they are unable to fly until regurgitating.

Turkey Vultures aren’t great nest builders. Nests are made on cliffs, in caves, in hollow stumps or even on the ground (provided there is dense shrubbery). The female makes little attempt to build a nest (of dried leaves or decayed wood) and the male makes none at all. One to three white eggs with brown markings are laid in three- to four-day intervals. Both sexes incubate the eggs for approximately five to six weeks. The hatchlings remain in the nest for eight to ten weeks, at which point they are able to fly.

Turkey Vultures are considered beautiful and graceful while flying. They hold their broad wings at a slight obtuse angle and have a narrow, rounded tail. Sunlight reflects from glossy plumage and the birds appear to have a silvery hue. They effortlessly soar for hours at amazing heights, navigating rising thermals and air currents in ever widening spirals. However, if they can be called majestic in flight, then they are uncouth and gangly on land. They have flat feet with little muscular power, and they shuffle or hop about.

Called a “voiceless bird,” Turkey Vultures are actually able to produce several sounds. They can emit a subdued grunt, and a hiss or snarl is uttered when expressing a right to a carcass.

Scientists believe the birds' bare-headedness is a useful adaptation that is beneficial during feeding. At this time, the vulture’s head-feathers would have become matted and bacteria-infested. The absence of head feathers is especially important because of the vulture’s inability to preen its head and neck. Another adaptation of the Turkey Vulture is its tendency to defecate directly on its feet. Biologists believe this is done to cool their feet and kill bacteria.

Turkey Vultures are listed as a species of "least concern" on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's Red List.

Although they are numerous, Turkey Vultures have been persecuted in the past. Cattle ranchers once believed that vultures carried diseases that could spread to cattle. The truth is vultures have the opposite effect and are useful in removing sources of infection.

The birds have also proven their helpfulness elsewhere. Gas pipes are often located across miles of unpopulated land. When a leak occurs, Turkey Vultures are attracted by the smell and will circle overhead, which alerts humans to the problem.

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